CHE —-a remarkable film about a remarkable man, revolutionary icon Ernesto Guevara, whose 14 years of battling capitalist oppression ended when he was just 39, executed (murdered, if you’re fair) in Bolivia in 1967. The first feature film about him came just two years later, but 1969s Che! was reviled by critics and failed to ignite any passion with ticket buyers. The large and ambitious yet up-close-and-focused 2008 saga is a stunner achievement, as directed by the prolific Steven Soderbergh, with a script by Peter Buchman, starring Benecio del Toro. *
“Nobody is going home on leave. We have only won the war. The revolution has just begun.”
Originally shown in film festivals and premiere locales as one piece, it was then released the following year as two, the 271 minutes that comprise its daunting (to the impatient) 4½ hours evenly split between 135 minutes for Part One: The Argentine and 136 allotted to Part Two: Guerrilla. The first covers idealistic doctor Guevara joining Fidel Castro (very well played by Demián Bicher of A Better Life) in the fight to overthrow the Batista dictatorship of Cuba, and his emergence as an exemplary and inspiring military leader, while a few sequences highlight Che’s confrontational visit to the U.N. in 1964. Part One wraps with the revolution’s astonishing victory in 1959. Then, skipping his post-revolt activities as Castro’s right-hand man in Cuba and his forlorn sojourn to Africa, Part Two shows him in Bolivia, where his attempt to stir benumbed peasants into rising up against their rulers (yet another brutal clique backed by the U.S.) only lasted a year before he was captured and shot.
Soderbergh filmed the segments back to front, whipping through them with laser-like precision in 39 days apiece, with Andalucian hills in Spain doubling for the highlands of Bolivia, and locations in Mexico and Puerto Rico standing in for the lush jungles and colonial legacy towns of Cuba. As he usually does, Soderbergh also worked as his own cinematographer, using his pseudonym Peter Andrews. Each portion has a different visual approach, the first more old-school expansive, evoking the growing sweep of destined triumph, the second accenting a cinema-verite style, suggesting the more isolated claustrophobia of looming defeat; both work their spell to excellent effect. Casting throughout is choice down to the tiniest bit part. Tense and realistic action abounds, and the various scenarios are handled in a consistently fascinating manner, almost a straightforward resistance document.
Soderbergh:”I wanted to show day-to-day stuff—things that have meaning on a practical level and on an ideological level, but that, from a narrative standpoint, aren’t necessarily in support of some goal. It’s a way of showing what it might have been like to be there. It’s not just a relentless surge of movement going forward all the time.”
There’s enough material in Che Guevara’s brief but jam-packed life for a half-dozen movies. Benecio del Toro is superb, a quietly confident, non-showy portrait displaying iron will and adaptability, courage and recklessness, humor and ruthlessness, compassion and defiance.
Done for $58,000,000, pre-sold bookings covered all but $4,000,000 of that cost, and though the second episode only did a quarter as much business as the first, things came out fairly well with a total worldwide take of $40,900,000, doing its best with audiences in Spain, Japan and France.
The swarming cast includes Rodrigo Santoro (as Raul Castro), Franka Potente, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Oscar Isaac, Edgar Ramírez, Lou Diamond Phillips, Joaquin de Almeida, Julia Ormond, Santiago Cabrera, Yul Vazquez, Jordi Mollà and Matt Damon (a somewhat distracting cameo). Music score by Alberto Iglesias. “Ours is a fight to the death.”
* Ideally, before settling down for a long afternoon of ambushes, this intellectual action epic should be preceded by watching the marvelous 2004 adventure The Motorcycle Diaries, with Gael Garcia Bernal depicting the 23-year-old Guevara’s coming-of-age trip around South America, planting the seeds for his future rebellion. It’s been fifty years since I saw 1969s maligned Che!, with Omar Sharif and Jack Palance (as Fidel). I recall enjoying it as a reasonably aware but as yet non-aligned 14-year-old, and need to take another look to see if it’s really as bad as the pile-on reviews have it.